MENTAL SKILL TRAINING: CAN WE IGNORE IT ON THE FIELD?
Are social stigmas about mental health leading us to miss out on the performance enhancement gains and mental toughness that Sports Psychology offers? Col Abhayjit Sandhu, Army Sports Institute Pune, debunks the many myths about Psychological Skills Training, and shines a light on how professionally administered Psychological Skills Training can benefit players. Col Sandhu has an MA in Sports Psychology, and is an alumnus of the 4th Edition of the High Performance Leadership Program
Mental health has been called into question when the stakes are high. We witnessed Simone Biles opting out of her favourite event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and Noah Lyles breaking down after earning bronze in the 200 metres race. That same year also saw Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open for reason of her mental health.
Noah Lyles addressed his mental health struggles in a seven-minute TV conversation in 202, highlighting his battle with anti-depressants and having to wean himself off in the run up to the Olympics. He shared that he experienced a surge of emotions which had been buried under the prescription drug he was forced to take to battle depression.
While fellow athletes acknowledged Simon Biles' brave decision to back off from her favourite event as a brave step in recognizing her mental condition, the world was not so kind. People questioned her ability to perform under pressure as a sign of lack of mental resilience. But, years of training and expectation - including arithmetic which predicted a five Gold haul, her eventual withdrawal from all
events but one, is actually a story of resilience against odds. The decision to go against popular opinion requires more courage than succumbing to it.
Closer to home, the outright admission of wrestler Vineesh Phogat that the absence of her Sports Psychologist in her corner at Tokyo 2020 led to her lackluster performance brings the spotlight on Sports Psychology, a less glorious branch of Sports Medicine. Sports Psychology’s nascent growth in India is attributable to a lack of awareness of its potential benefits in performance enhancement, especially when the athlete is under pressure to perform. An introspection of Tokyo 2020 held at an elite National institute (name withheld due to confidentiality) in 2021 led to a large number of athletes sharing the unsustainable pressure of their respective organisations, the demanding conditions of conditioning camps held overseas with alien culture (including unfamiliar culinary habits) and ultimately the expectant pressure of their world rankings, weighed upon them in the run up to the games.
The untold mental pressure was relatively new to a large number of them,, especially those in their first Olympic Games. Could all this pressure have been managed by the athlete ? The answer could be yes or no. Yes, because Psychological Skill Training is an organized activity intrinsic to the Sports Medicine System.
Psychological skills training (PST) refers to the systematic and consistent practice of mental psychological skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment or achieving greater sport and physical activity self-satisfaction. The skill training teaches an athlete to recognize pressure, accept its existence as a part of elite sports culture and learn coping methods to overcome performance dysfunction. The areas which are included in this training are behaviour modification, cognitive theory and therapy, rational emotive therapy, goal setting, attentional control, progressive muscle relaxation, and systematic desensitization.
Common belief systems propagate the requirement of Sports Psychologists as ‘interventionists’ when an athlete is facing a mental hurdle, people who identify a mental roadblock affecting the athlete and provide a remedy. Undoubtedly, this is one of the strategies employed by a Sports Psychologist for performance enhancement, but its relevance has been overstated. This may be because Clinical Psychology, which is more prominent in our society, is intervention based. A Sports Psychologist’s intervention in a crunch moment might save the day, but it cannot be relied upon as the sure solution for an athlete facing a mental issue which requires programmed learning and intervention.
The knowledge gained by an athlete by undergoing a Psychological Skills Programme empowers him to break through the mental dilemmas faced in competition sometimes even when he is deprived of the services of a Sports Psychologist in his corner. Perhaps, if Vineesh Phogat had been mentally trained she could have worked around her Sports Psychologist’s absence at the Games. All because she would have been to recognize, accept and act under pressure. In other words, she would have been taught Mental Toughness. In today’s time, it is a no-brainer that mental and emotional components often overshadow and transcend the purely physical and technical aspects of performance.
Modern sports bring along a plethora of challenges for athletes, as much on the field as off it. While on the field, the training and the skills of the opponent are under contention. The off-field challenges can be equally daunting. Expensive endorsement deals require an athlete to function beyond the sports arena and the psychology of a player is tested by people who are non-athletes, sometimes at the cost of valuable training time. The pressures of the organization, peers, teammates and significant others bears on the psychology of an athlete.
Some common Myths on PST which exist in our environment and need a systemic addressal for enhancement of sport are enumerated below:
PST is for “Problem” Athletes only: This is far from the truth. All athletes irrespective of their stature or age require training.
PST is for Elite Training only. It is for amateurs, professionals and even disabled athletes
PST provides a “Quick Fix”. PST will not bring changes overnight. It will assist an athlete to reach his/her potential and maximize abilities.
PST is not useful. Lots of coaches and athletes categorize it as a useless bunk. However, scientific research has proven its efficacy in performance enhancement
Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The Psychological Skill Training Programme can be structured to have the undermentioned constituents:
Arousal regulation: Arousal is a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person. Highly aroused individuals are mentally and physically activated; they have increased heart rates, respiration and sweating. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that a high arousal state causes an increase in performance, but beyond a limit, an increasing arousal state causes a decrement in performance.
Imagery (mental preparation). Imagery has been defined as “using all the senses to re-create or create an experience in the mind”. (Velaey & Greenleaf, 2001, p.248). The spiker in volleyball imagines herself smashing the ball across the net in an unprotected zone in the opponents half. Self-confidence. This intervention aims at encouraging managing an athlete’s ‘self-perception’ by encouraging him to think positively about his skill sets in comparison to peers. Self- Confidence is characterized by a high expectancy of success. It can help athletes arouse positive emotions, facilitate concentration, set goals, increase effort, focus on games strategies and maintain momentum.
Increasing motivation and commitment (goal setting): The aim is to make the athlete commit to setting a goal and then motivating him to achieve that goal in a progressive manner. Athletes may set long term goals but on an approach to a competition also indulge in positive self-talk containing specific goal parameters.
Attentional or concentration skills (self-talk, mental plans): Concentration in sport typically contains four parts:
focusing on relevant cues in the environment (selective attention)
maintaining that attentional focus over time
having awareness of situational and performance awareness
shifting attentional focus when necessary.
The trained athlete engages in talking to himself (through phrases or verbal cues) during a tough situation during the competition phase. This activity is learnt during the practice phase under the guidance of the Coach or a mental skill trainer.
Coping with injury: Injury experience involves a physical dysfunction with an accompaniment of psychological issues. It is not uncommon for injured athletes to feel isolated, frustrated, anxious and depressed. An interventionist is required to motivate the athlete and assist him to adhere to rehabilitation protocols. Goal setting, social support, positive self-talk and healing imagery, relaxation training go a long way in coping with injuries.
A Psychological Skill Training (PST) program should ideally last from 3 to 6 months. Learning, practicing and integrating new mental skills takes this much time. Assessment and profiling the athlete is an important precursor to implementation of the program. The performance and psychological skills possessed by the athlete also decide the structure and duration of the program. Suffice to say that any program must be conducted under the guidance of a Sports Psychology Consultant (SPC) if we are to fully realize the potential of the program.